The Number of Measles Cases This Year Is Already Troubling — and It’s Only April

Two outbreaks of the highly contagious disease are slowly growing on opposite sides of the country.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
April 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

In the dec­ade after measles was largely erad­ic­ated in the United States in 2000, the num­ber of re­por­ted cases of the highly con­ta­gious dis­ease hovered around 60 each year.

But since 2010, the an­nu­al num­ber has shot up to 155, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. And in just the first three months of 2014, 106 cases have been re­por­ted across the coun­try. Health of­fi­cials are wor­ried.

CDC is­sued a travel warn­ing last month after sev­er­al un­vac­cin­ated chil­dren re­turned to the states with measles in­fec­tions from the Phil­ip­pines, where the dis­ease is still re­l­at­ively com­mon. Among phys­i­cians, some pe­di­at­ric in­fec­tious-dis­ease spe­cial­ists have be­gun plead­ing with the Amer­ic­an pub­lic to vac­cin­ate their chil­dren.

Measles is an air­borne vir­al in­fec­tion that af­fects the skin and res­pir­at­ory and im­mune sys­tems, start­ing with a rash and high fever. It can be pre­ven­ted with a blanket vac­cin­a­tion that also pro­tects against mumps and ru­bella. Be­fore wide­spread vac­cin­a­tion ef­forts took root in 2000, the U.S. saw about 500,000 measles cases each year, which led to 48,000 hos­pit­al­iz­a­tions and 500 deaths.

Right now, two out­breaks are slowly spread­ing on op­pos­ite sides of the coun­try. In New York City, the num­ber of re­por­ted cases in an out­break that began in Feb­ru­ary rose to 26 last week. In Cali­for­nia, 49 measles cases have been re­por­ted this year, com­pared with four at this time last year.

Most cur­rent measles cases have been linked to for­eign sources, such as the Phil­ip­pines. But the rate of U.S. par­ents choos­ing not to vac­cin­ate their chil­dren has in­creased in re­cent years, res­ult­ing in a high­er in­cid­ence of the ill­ness. More than 90 per­cent of young chil­dren are vac­cin­ated against measles in the U.S., but laws re­quir­ing im­mun­iz­a­tion for school­chil­dren vary by state.

Cali­for­nia is one of 19 states that al­lows par­ents to opt out of im­mun­iz­a­tions for young school­chil­dren on the basis of per­son­al be­liefs. In these states, the rate of un­vac­cin­ated chil­dren is high­er. And when un­vac­cin­ated chil­dren are clustered in one re­gion, the risk of an out­break from an im­por­ted in­fec­tion is high­er. New York does not al­low such an ex­emp­tion.

A con­sid­er­able chunk of Amer­ic­an phys­i­cians, es­pe­cially young ones, have not seen measles be­cause of its vir­tu­al elim­in­a­tion 14 years ago. But as the num­ber of re­por­ted cases con­tin­ues to climb, that will likely change. And it’s only April.

For more in­form­a­tion about measles and its pre­ven­tion, vis­it cdc.gov/measles.

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